The American Civil War was a defining moment in American history but as many may not be aware, it was also a defining moment for Irish communities too. Over 200,000 Irish men and women served in the war, on both sides.
The American Civil War took place from 1861 to 1865, after 11 states announced their secession from the United States. They formed the Confederate States of America, with the remaining 25 states supporting the Union, or federal government. The Confederates surrendered in 1865, leading to the abolition of slavery. Irish-Americans served on both sides of the American Civil War as officers, volunteers and draftees.
Irish immigration to the United States has taken place since colonial times. This is borne out by the fact 9 of the signatories of the Declaration of Independence nearly a century previously were Irish, of Irish descent or had Irish connections.
Thousands of men who had immigrated from Ireland to America, due to the Great Famine from 1845 to 1852, were potential recruits. Some Irishmen used the military experience that they gained in the American Civil War to fight against the British Empire with the goal of establishing an Irish Republic, as members of the Irish Republican Brotherhood, the Fenian Brotherhood and Clan na Gael. A very large numbers of Scots-Irish were involved in the American Civil War, particularly for the Confederacy.
Most Irish-Americans had settled in the north eastern American states and were thus called up to serve when the southern states seceded and formed the Confederacy in 1861. In fact the first recorded casualty of the war was that of Tipperary born Private Daniel Hough. Born in 1825 near Borrisokane, he died aged just 36-years old.
One of the bloodiest and largest battles of the entire war happened at Fredericksburg in 1862. The battle began on the 11th of December, but it intensified significantly after the Union side tried to an assault at Marye’s Heights on the 13th of December in the town was part of a twin offensive by Union forces against the Confederate Army’s positions in the town. The battle was ordered by commander of the Union Army, Gen. Ambrose Burnside, but the offensive was to prove costly.
The Union’s Irish Brigade, consisting mostly of the 69th New York Infantry, was decimated by Confederate forces during multiple efforts to take Marye’s Heights. Reinforced by the Irish 28th Massachusetts, which had replaced the 29th Massachusetts, and the 116th Pennsylvania, the brigade of about 1,600 men was led under Brig. Gen. Thomas F. Meagher.
Meagher was from Waterford and had been sentenced to deportation to Tasmania for his part in the Fenian Rebellion of 1848. He escaped and managed to gain passage to New York. At the time war broke out, Meagher was a prominent journalist and member of the IRB in the US. It is Meagher who is credited with introducing the present Irish tricolour flag used by the Republic of Ireland. It was given to him as a present by French women.
In a cruel twist of irony, they were up against the 24th Georgia Infantry, a Confederate regiment made up mostly of Irishmen. One of the senior officers of the regiment was Irishman Maj. Robert McMillan. Upon noticing that they would be fighting the 69th, and fellow countrymen, McMillan gave the order to attack, shouting, “Give it to them now, boys! Now’s the time! Give it to them!”
Just as had happened 3 months earlier at the Battle of Antietam, the Irish Brigade attacked the Confederate position behind a sunken road and wall, with the resulting bottleneck of troops trying to overcome the obstacle meaning they were easy targets for Confederate forces.
Of the 1600 men of the brigade that began the assault on Marye’s Heights, only 256 returned fit for combat. It was after this battle that General Lee of the Confederate Army dubbed the 69th Infantry “The Fighting 69th”, for the valour and bravery they showed in defeat. For Burnside and the Union, the loss was grave. Abraham Lincoln, reflecting on the loss of life suffered would write:”If there is a worse place than hell, I am in it.”
A month later Burnside would be relieved of command after yet another catastrophic failure. As for Meagher, he tried unsuccessfully to recruit the brigade back to full strength. Meagher would resign his commission later in 1863 in protest. Command of the brigade was given to Col Patrick Kelly, another Irishman, from Tuam, Co. Galway. Kelly would go on to lead the brigade in its finest hour at the Battle of Gettysburg in July 1863.
Ireland produced more American Civil War Generals than any other foreign country. In all 18 Irishmen acted as serving generals during the war; 12 Federal and 6 Confederate. They range from the Confederacy’s Patrick Cleburne, the highest ranking Irishman on either side, who advocated arming the slaves in return for their freedom, to the Union’s James Shields, who almost fought a duel with Abraham Lincoln before the war and took on Stonewall Jackson in the Shenandoah Valley. Irish officers included:
- Busteed, Richard U.S.A. – Born in Cavan on 16th February 1822.
- Connor, Patrick Edward U.S.A. – Born in Co. Kerry on 17th March 1820.
- Corcoran, Michael U.S.A. – Born in Carrowkeel, Co. Sligo on 21st September 1827.
- Gamble, William U.S.A. – Born in Duross, Co. Tyrone on 1st January 1818.
- Jackson, Richard Henry U.S.A. – Born in Kinnegad, Co. Westmeath on 14th July 1830.
- Jones, Patrick Henry U.S.A. – Born in Co. Westmeath in November 1830.
- Kiernan, James Lawlor U.S.A. – Born in Mount Bellew, Co. Galway on 26th October 1837.
- Lawler, Michael Kelly U.S.A. – Born in Co. Kildare on 16th November 1814.
- Meagher, Thomas Francis U.S.A. – Born in Waterford, Ireland on 3rd August 1823.
- Shields, James U.S.A. – Born in Co. Tyrone on 10th May 1810.
- Smyth, Thomas Alfred U.S.A. – Born in Ballyhooley, Co. Cork on 25th December 1832.
- Sweeny, Thomas William U.S.A. – Born in Co. Cork on the 25th December 1820.
- Browne, William Montague C.S.A. – Born in Mayo in 1823. Rank: Brig. General
- Cleburne, Patrick Ronayne C.S.A. – Born at Bride Park Cottage, near Ovens, Co. Cork on 16th March 1828. Rank: General
- Finegan, Joseph C.S.A. – Born in Clones, Co. Monaghan on 17th November 1814. Rank: General
- Hagan, James C.S.A. – Born in Co. Tyrone in 1822.
- Lane, Walter Paye C.S.A. – Born in Co. Cork, 18th February 1817.
- Moore, Patrick Theodore C.S.A. – Born in Galway on the 22nd September 1821. Rank: General
Units such as the Charleston Irish Volunteers attracted Confederate Irish-Americans in South Carolina, the 24th Georgia Volunteer Infantry followed General Thomas Reade Rootes Cobb, while Irish Tennesseans could join the 10th Tennessee Infantry Regiment. A company of the Washington Blues regiment of the Missouri Volunteer Militia (later the Missouri State Guard), commanded by Colonel Joseph Kelly, was the subject of a Confederate version of a Union song, “Kelly’s Irish Brigade”.
The Louisiana Tigers, first raised by Major Chatham Roberdeau Wheat, had a large number of Irish American members. Company E, Emerald Guard, 33rd Virginia Infantry of the Stonewall Brigade composed of Irish immigrant volunteers may have been the first to initiate the “rebel yell” at 1st Bull Run attacking 14th New York guns on Henry Hill.
The Irish who fought at the Battle of Fredericksburg are remembered in our Conflict gallery, one of 20 interactive galleries at EPIC The Irish Emigration Museum. This gallery remembers and commemorates Irish emigrants who have fought in the wars and battles of other nations, from the 16th century to the present day.